Big football names come in all shapes and sizes

BEFORE football became the plaything of broadcasters, governments and corporates, big clubs could be found in almost every country in Europe. A club wasn’t considered big by merely having a huge bank balance, but more by its place in society. Hence, any list of the world’s most influential clubs would include those that were systemic in their own market – in other words, a giant in their domestic league and a force in European football. Today, a club’s revenues, wage bill, brand power and social media presence are every bit as important. This shift, coupled with the collapse of state-supported clubs in the old communist bloc, has changed the pecking order in global football.

Eastern Europe, for example, once had a number of giant clubs that were feared opponents in the European Cup, Cup-Winners’ Cup and Fairs Cup/UEFA Cup. The names of these clubs have lived on, even if their position in the food chain has undoubtedly changed. This year, I undertook a river cruise down the Danube into eastern Europe, a trip that was delayed by covid, but one that would include five different countries and some famous locations. I had longed to visit some of these cities, most of which had been brought to my attention via football when I was a boy.

In particular, I was looking forward to venturing into Belgrade and Bucharest, the final stop on the journey. I always judge how much of a football city a location is by the amount of time it takes to bump into evidence of the game when you arrive. Before we landed in Serbia, we were in Osijek, Croatia, a city with a top flight club. I was expecting some grafitti extolling the virtues of the local team, but instead, there were plenty of “Bad Blue Boys” artwork, the ultra group of Dinamo Zagreb, the club that dominates Croatian football.

Into the Serbian capital, there was no doubt about the status of the big two clubs, Red Star Belgrade and Partizan. Although these two slug it out for bragging rights, year-in, year-out, I was told that something like 70% of the population of Serbia like Red Star. They are certainly seen as a flag-bearer for Serbian football, boosted by their European Cup win back in 1991, but the recent troubled history of the region has also played its part. I have to admit, I felt a little shamed at my lack of knowledge about the Balkan wars.

There is a plethora of countries where everyone you meet seems to be a fan of the most well-known club. The travelling Portuguese all seem to be Benfica supporters, which probably has something to do with the fact that many of them originate from the capital, Lisbon. As for Spain, clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona have fans all over the world, their fame spreading thanks to their success and the legend that grew around them – long before people were employed to develop and export their brand. Go to Spain and it doesn’t take long before you bump into Real, Barca, Atlético, Sevilla and Bilbao, it is one of the most naturally intense football nations in the world. Italy is similar and Juventus seems to appeal to fans all over the country, partly due to the industrial development of Turin, which drew workers from all corners.

In England, the two names with the greatest footprint are Manchester United and Liverpool, despite the efforts being made by the London clubs and Manchester City. Both became popular due to their exploits in Europe – United in the 1950s, a period sadly curtailed by the Munich crash and Liverpool in the late 1970s and 1980s. Today success is measured by how much energy is placed behind marketing a club, “growing the global presence”.

While broadcasting money has made some Premier League clubs “larger” than others that have long and fruitful European histories as well as huge fanbases, it is a sad fact that some football institutions that have been pivotal in the evolution of the game have a bigger “name” than their commercial appeal.

In Bucharest, the name “Steaua” appears on walls, tunnels and bridges, but the recent story of the only Romanian club to win a European prize is confusing. Ongoing disputes over use of the name mean there are two clubs claiming the heritage of Steaua Bucharest. Steaua, Rapid and Dinamo were all part of a vibrant football scene in Bucharest, but the possibility of these mingling with the Real Madrids and Bayern Munichs on a frequent basis would seem unlikely. Since Steaua won the European Cup in 1986, attendances in Romania have declined by 75%.

There is a correlation between national economies and the position of a country’s football. The top clubs in Europe today come from five of the top six economies: Germany, UK, France, Italy and Spain. Money, in the form of sovereign wealth funds, broadcasters, oil billionaires and financial institutions, has been drawn to market potential. Yet the challenged football markets of Europe still have clubs that once captured the imagination of fans around the continent. There was once a sense of mystery and romance about crack sides from the east, something which has been lost due to familiarity and globalisation. But you cannot take away their history or their place in the culture of their respective countries. And while they may not sit at the very top table, they should still command our respect.

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine.

The football media has its favourites

POST-MATCH interviews are very anodyne. You could almost write the script yourself. Sometimes you wonder why TV channels bother to “get a few words from…” the managers of both sides. They are never going to give anything away, rarely going to admit to seeing a key incident and will never point to a weakness in their side.

Punditry has gone the same way, full of safe comments, cliché and jargon, and the big problem we have today is the fake intimacy that pundits have with players and coaches, referring to them by their first names rather than keeping it professional. What does this do? Only makes it harder to make an objective comment about a game, because we’re all mates.

The football professionals know that without their input, much of the activity on our TV channels is wasted. So, any contentious questions are batted away, or met with a “lost in translation” response. How often do you see a coach pretend he didn’t hear the interviewer’s question when he’s asked something hinting at mistakes made by a team or players, or even the coach himself? It’s a clever tactic to diffuse or distract the course of the interview.

Love and hate

The media have their favourite managers and players, indeed teams. Going back in time, Sir Alf Ramsey could never have won a popularity contest if he tried, largely because he refused to pander to anyone. Likewise, Don Revie was never appreciated because his team was a bunch of “outsiders” who didn’t belong to the football establishment. Bill Shankly could never do anything wrong and neither could Matt Busby. Brian Clough was great copy, but he kept interviewers on their toes. They loved him when things were going well, but equally, when they didn’t, they also made the most of it. In the case of Clough, Mourinho, Revie and Ramsey, schadenfreude was definitely the name of the game.

Today, everone seems besotted with Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, although both have shown they can become very prickly when asked difficult but pertinent questions. Although both manage elitist clubs, hence success is almost a given, there is an intense fascination and a little mystique around both men. In the case of Guardiola, he doesn’t seem like a football man with his tech bro appearance and slightly aloof demeanour. Klopp is more conventional in that respect, but he has the aura of a happy, wealthy European businessman with a good dentist from a well-heeled Bavarian town. It’s easy to be fascinated with both managers.

The media have always adopted clubs and managers as their chosen partners. Again, using history as a benchmark, Tottenham’s double-winners of 1961 were eulogised about for decades by the press, often seen as the perfect team of sophisticated push-and-run experts. And their manager, Bill Nicholson, was a much respected fellow. And yet, their success was short-lived and by the late 1960s, a distant memory. Nicholson tried, often in vain, to replicate that success and between 1971 and 1973, won more trophies, but his time as an innovator was over. Mauricio Pochettino enjoyed great consistency at the club, but he never won a trophy. In fact, nobody has ever matched Nicholson because the reputation that Spurs gained for their footballing quality was built by “Bill Nick”.

Similarly, West Ham were regarded, for years and years, as a footballing team based on the principles of Ron Greenwood, who actually left the club as manager in the mid-70s. Obviously, with two trophies and a team that included the England triumvirate of Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst, the Hammers’ deserved their plaudits, but the belief that this purist approach to football continued was something of a fallacy. Anyone who watched West Ham as they struggled to maintain their first division place would testify that at times, the football was abject, even if the atmosphere at Upton Park was to be savoured.

Lucky

Conversely, Arsenal had to convince people to shrug aside their reputation for being “lucky” and culturally defensive. When they won the double in 1971, there was no great acclaim that Bertie Mee’s side was the best in the land. Arsenal were “boring” according to the press and lacked charm. This put-down went back many years, indeed as far back as the Herbert Chapman era when the great man opted for a defensive style that was extraordinarily successful. While Chapman was seen as a great innovator and intelligent operator, his style was rather cautious, as noted by the Austrian coach Willi Meisl, who frequently questioned his friend why he had opted for defence-first option. Arsenal were consider “lucky” but basically, it was more that the Gunners were extremely strategic and economical. Only when Arsène Wenger brought his European ideals to Highbury (and then the Emirates), did Arsenal become form over function in the eyes of the football public. In fact, suddenly every reporter, TV personality and actor seemed to be an Emirates season ticket holder.

The other team that was revered as much as Spurs 1961 was the Busby Babes, for obvious reasons. It would be unfair to say that this team’s legend was enhanced by their tragic demise, but this was the best side in Britain at the time. This was really the first example of a team of home-grown youngsters coming to the fore, a process that was copied later by Chelsea and Burnley, among others. The Spurs team was never as influential because by the time Nicholson’s men scooped the hallowed prize, the lure of the continent was becoming evident. You could argue the Arsenal and Leeds sides of the late 1960s and early 1970s were influenced as much by catenaccio and the Italian giants of Milan.

Busby rebuilt United and created another great side, the Manchester United of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton. Rarely had any team included such outstanding talent. United, it was said, had beautiful football in their DNA, and post-Busby and indeed the holy trinity, countless sides had this burden hanging over them. Even at the end of the Busby period, it was a trial and when they were relegated in 1974 with Tommy Docherty in charge, they had a workmanlike unit that was not averse to clogging its way to survival. United’s “style”, which had long gone, took years to return under Alex Ferguson. If playing with flair was a prerequisite, it seems vaguely ridiculous they chose to hire José Mourinho knowing his pragmatism would be incompatible with United’s mythical ethos.

In and out

On a different level, there have been managers and clubs that have been lauded for their approach even though the quality of football has been questionable. Sean Dyche was idolised at Burnley, and rightly so given his record of keeping the club in the Premier League. Nobody was allowed to criticise Dyche’s style because of that very reason, yet Burnley were not the most watchable of teams. Yet the newspapers loved Dyche and his gravelly voice, but eventually, he was sacked by Burnley and they were relegated at the end of 2021-22.

Right now, Thomas Frank is one of the media darlings, along with Klopp and Guardiola. The press don’t really know how to take either Thomas Tuchel and Antonio Conte at Chelsea and Tottenham respectively, and Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta slips in and out of favour. Graham Potter at Brighton is highly regarded and seen as the sort of character who would be appointed England manager. Steve Gerrard is seen as heir apparent to Klopp’s Anfield throne.

It’s a moveable feast, though. Managers and teams can be flavour of the month at the start of the season and move to zero status in a few weeks, such is the fragile nature of success. There are 20 managers in the Premier, but only a small number get the bulk of the attention, because outside of the top two or three, the rest are just a couple of results away from the sack. No wonder they seem scared to say anything of consequence.